Asian youngsters not above picking up tips

Rising teenage amateurs Yan Jing and Minjee Lee grab the chance to learn as much as they can from their seasoned playing partners

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 March, 2014, 9:36pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 March, 2014, 9:41pm

Yan Jing provided a fascinating insight into the mind of the modern golfer as the gallery gathered around the 18th hole at last week's US$600,000 World Ladies Championship.

While play on the opening day was drawing to its end across Mission Hills Haikou's signature Blackstone course, around 100 golf fans had packed the rise around the final green to watch every move made by South Korean world number one Park In-bee and China's first major winner Feng Shanshan as they closed out their second rounds.

It immediately became apparent they weren't the only ones planning to do so.

As Feng lined up her last putt, the 18-year-old Yan, China's top amateur, was briefly down on her haunches, too, eyes only for the woman who claimed the 2012 LPGA Championship, and providing a study in complete concentration.

This is a great opportunity for me and I want to make the most of being here and being surrounded by all these great players
Yan Jing

"This is a great opportunity for me and I want to make the most of being here and being surrounded by all these great players," said Yan.

Not long after, a similar scene played out, only this time it was the world's top amateur, Korean-Australian 17-year-old Minjee Lee, who was crouched down and not letting a single move Park made escape her attention as the four-time major winner addressed her ball for her final stroke of the day.

"I feel like I can play with the pros," said Lee afterwards. "And it was pretty cool playing with In-bee. It definitely gives me confidence that I can mix it with the pros and compete with them. I feel like I have got a chance in any tournament I play now."

Two of the best young players doing the rounds are leaving nothing to chance as they prepare for life as touring pros and they were making sure they made full use of every moment they had out on course, after being paired with Feng and Park for the WLC's first two days of play.

"This is the third time I am playing this event and this was the third time I have played with Feng - I have learned a lot from her," said Yan, after shooting a second-round, one-under 72 that ensured she made the cut and would play on into the weekend of the tournament, co-sanctioned by the Ladies European Tour and the China LPGA Tour.

"I have tried to focus on my own game too but we have had a few chats about things which is nice and I am sure it will help me going forward."

While Yan admits her game remains a work in progress - she finished the event on one-under but 23 strokes behind eventual winner Park - the confidence and the clarity of vision she showed on course belied her age and relative inexperience.

"I am a walking dictionary when it comes to golf and I know it is what I want to dedicate my life to," said Yan, whose father is a golf commentator for ESPN's Chinese feed.

Feng, for one, was left impressed. Yan is among a rising generation of female Chinese golfers that also included at this event Hong Kong 18-year-old Isabella Leung and 15-year-old mainlander Shi Yuting. "You can see how much work these girls are putting in and how prepared they are for everything," she said. "They seem to be doing everything right."

Asia is a dominant force in the women's game with 10 of the world's top-20 ranked players coming from the region (counting Korean-born New Zealander Lydia Ko, and with Park winning three of last year's five major events. It's a phenomenon that looks set to continue, with the likes of Lee leading the way.

The Perth-born star returned home to Australia to the news that she had been invited to her first major - next month's Kraft Nabisco Championship in California. But before she left Hainan she made it plain that so far her fledgling career was going according to plan.

"There's no rush," said Lee. "I am happy with my game but I still feel I have a lot to learn. The aim is to get my card at the end of the year and turn pro then."

Lee finished the WLC tied for fourth on 15 under par, rattling off three birdies over the event's last four holes to make good on her pre-tournament promise to herself that she would finish in the top five.

She immediately found a fan in the world's number one player. "She has the game, there's no doubt about that," said the 25-year-old Park.

"And the way she handles herself shows she is doing all the right things. She has a big future in the game for sure."

That result followed a sensational summer Down Under where Lee won her first professional event, the Victorian Open, by six strokes in February, while finishing second behind Cheyenne Woods - Tiger's niece - at the Australian Ladies Masters.

Many around the game had supposed Lee might follow the move of fellow rising antipodean star Ko, the 16-year-old New Zealander who turned pro last year after finishing runner-up to world number two Suzann Pettersen of Norway at The Evian Championship in France.

But the youngster is sticking to her plan. "

"I want to keep learning and gaining experience and tournaments such as this are giving me the opportunity to do that. I am learning every round I play," she explained. "I think I can keep up with my long game, it's just my short game that needs to keep improving."

Lee was also introduced into the game by a parent who played (her mother was a teacher at Perth's Royal Fremantle course) and, like Yan now, has one eye set on the pro ranks, and one eye on Brazil in 2016 where golf makes its return to the Olympics after an absence of 112 years.

"Well, you'd be representing your country and what else could you hope for as an athlete?" said Lee. "Going to the Olympics, playing for your country and playing the sport that you love - it doesn't get better than that."

They were sentiments shared by Yan, who had finished the last edition of the WLC tied for 20th, which made her the top amateur for the 2013 tournament.

"I feel like it would be a great honour to represent China," she said.

"And the Olympics are a great opportunity for us all. It's an event unlike any other. The women's game in China and in Asia is really strong as you can see here this week in Mission Hills. I try not to think too much about the future but hopefully I can help make it even stronger."